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Shooting right on target

The opening of newspaper photographer Muntu Vilakazi’s first photographic exhibition, Politics of Bling: An East Rand Culture Quest, last week, was unusual. There were no jacket-and-tie-clad art collector types nor was there wine, cheese or biscuits on arrival.

At the exhibition at Goethe on Main in the Maboneng precinct house music blared loudly from speakers, a noisy, youthful crowd, consisting of a mixed masala of photographers, artists, writers, poets, painters, and simply curious youth from the townships pitched to judge how township sub-culture of bling, is represented. Instead of wine, you had to wash this all down with a beer.

A colourfully modified and painted car was revved for long periods to create the ambiance for the opening of Politics of Bling: An East Rand Culture Quest. Now was the time to have a peek into the township’s sub-culture of bling, focusing on the three East Rand townships, Vosloorus, Katlehong and KwaThema.

The exhibition is a scary journey into the townships’ middle-class lifestyle – where there is little restraint: fashion, expensive drinks, cigars and girls are very much part of its fabric.

A youthful crowd gathered around an old dust-covered BMW. Sitting in the driver’s seat is a youth, probably the same age as the impressionable spectators around him. The spectacle is his skilful spinning of the car in Vosloorus. This photograph is entitled Donuts. This picture hangs next to another of a BMW – except this 3 series is new. Entitled Gusheshe, street lingo for a BMW model, it is being shown off by its owner to friends – and some young children aged around four. These children are clearly being groomed into appreciating this materialistic subculture – a culture in which a car is appreciated above a house.

In picture after picture ostentatious wealth is celebrated – a Harley Davidson in full splendour photographed in a street with matchbox houses. A visitor to the exhibition who only wanted to be identified as Mluleki comments: “The modern day politicians are not different from these youth when it comes to showing off their possessions and wealth. Just like these youth, they too drive big cars, party like there is no tomorrow, and splurge on expensive single malt whisky. When you do this as leaders… what do you expect from the youth?”

Image gallery: Exhibition opening and township culture in the East Rand
Image gallery: Exhibition opening and township culture in the East Rand

But that is just one view. Poet Aviwe Damane looking at a photograph of two young women clad in shockingly colourful attire, referred to in township lingo as “colour blocking”, commented: “The whole thing about bling is to look good by choosing your colours and accessories carefully. These township girls are bold. They have a I don’t care attitude. This is done all the time in the township. It is a culture I can relate to. It is all about the image,” she said commenting on a photo entitled Red.

Vosloorus artist Khosi Hlatshwayo comments that Vilakazi’s exhibition is a “true reflection of what happens in Vosloorus where I come from. If you drive a flashy car, go partying and drink expensive beverages, you are considered a big man. You earn the respect of the people around you”.

There is a photograph, entitled Big Man to illustrate exactly his point. It shows the hands of a man, without showing the rest of his body, holding a long cigar, apparently a sign of showing that one has arrived, and is living a good life.

Rhodes University doctoral arts student Zama Nsele, 28, has an explanation: “Why should we deny those in the township the choice to spend their own money the way they want? For example, in such suburbs as Illovo, Sandton, Rosebank and Parkhurst, people there drive luxury cars, drink expensive beverages and eat at expensive restaurants. Why are we not judging them similarly? We have no moral authority to judge those who do the same thing in the townships since we live in the same country, which has striking poverty existing alongside opulent wealth.”

Vilakazi has this to say about his pictures: “It’s a story of young people’s struggle and the hunger for, and pursuit of, material possessions. This is a socialite culture where showing off puts you at a level of popular respect and perception of being well off. The show observes their ideas of progress against a society that sees them as counter progressive. It’s a story of cars, fashion, alcohol, girls and music.”

Politics of Bling: An East Rand Culture Quest runs at Goethe on Main from 6 February to 16 March 2014.

This article was first published in the Saturday Star on 15.02.2014. Author: Edward Tsumele

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